For the #251 8 Feb issue of Writers’ forum I interviewed Tim Collins about creating children’s book with unique selling points.
Tim has recently launched a series of puzzle adventure books. His new Sherlock Bones series combines a detective story with puzzles, such as mazes and spot-the-difference illustrations. The puzzles are inspired by the text, but readers don’t need to solve them to continue with the story. More confident readers can keep going and come back to them later, while those who want a break can stop and complete them.
He explained when writing for children it’s worth considering whether your story could be told in a different way. Could some of the action be told in cartoons? Could some of the dialogue be in speech bubbles? Could you box out some of the text as ‘top tips’ or ‘life lessons’? There must be hundreds of ways to mess things around that haven’t been done yet. His advise to othr authors is to experiment with format. Breaking up chapters with unusual elements can help young readers engage with books, especially if they’re put off by large chunks of text.
When Tim was writing th series he aimed to get a balance of mystery chapters and action chapters in the book, to vary the storytelling. For example, Bones and Catson crack a secret code in one chapter, and chase a suspect in the next.
“Whatever genre I’m writing in, I try to think about how much of the story will be mystery plot and how much will be action plot.”Tim Collins
Tim said when you’re writing a detective or mysteery story where your characters follow a series of clues try to end each chapter on a cliffhanger. Many children will be in the habit of reading a chapter, or having a chapter read to them, before bed, so you need to leave them wanting to know what happens. If you’re struggling to end a chapter on a cliffhanger, you can always have your character reflecting on their goals. Anything that makes the reader imagine what’s coming next.
The series is inspited by Holmes and Watson. Tim explained J M Barrie, Mark Twain, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Anthony Burgess, Michael Chabon, and Nicholas Meyer have all written pastiches of Holmes, so it’s a great tradition to be part of.
“It was fun to build a fantastical world with animals in place of humans, though I had to work out its exact rules first.”Tim Collins
As the majority of Holmes stories are narrated by Watson, he wrote his series from the viewpoint of Doctor Catson, using first person, which is an imtrigal part of the original stories, even though third person limited is more common for this age group. The first book is set in an animal-populated London. A bloodhound police inspector calls at Barker Street to tell Bones and Catson that the crown jewels have been stolen. Their investigation takes them everywhere from Buckingham Kennel to the secret tunnels beneath the city.
Anthropomorphic animals can be a great source of humour, especially when there’s a clash between their animal nature and the sophisticated roles they’re assuming. In the book, Sherlock chews rubber bones rather than smoking a pipe when he’s mulling things over, and Catson is easily distracted by string. It’s great if you can find a source of humour for young readers that doesn’t rely on puns. Publishers will be looking for something that can work in foreign editions, and puns are tough to translate. Admittedly, I’m being hypocritical here. The book, after all, is about a dog called Sherlock Bones who lives in Barker Street. But there are some you can’t resist.
Tim’s advice to someone writing a series for younger readers is to know what happens after book one. Even if you just write paragraph outlines for the next two books, you’ll know you have something more than just a good one-off. So much of this is down to having two or more central characters with a relationship that’s easy to write to, and keeps suggesting new adventures.
Writing series fiction for younger children can be very rewarding. Your books could be the ones that convert a child into a confident, independent reader. And if you think of an interesting way to present your story, it could help to draw more young people into reading for pleasure.
You can find out more about Tim and his books on his website: http://www.timcollinsbooks.com/
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